Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: "Letter Perfect"

David Sacks' Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z (Broadway, 2004) is a letter-by-letter history and examination of the English alphabet. Sacks offers an evolutionary history of each letter as it has come down to us, and a cultural study of the letter's usages (and misusages) over time. It is, for the most part, fairly interesting, but I think if I were reading it again I would not have tried to read it straight through, but rather picked it up on occasion and read just a section or two. I found it got rather repetitive by about halfway in, and pretty much stopped caring by the time I got to R and S. What is here, though, is good: pronunciation shifts, changes in letter shapes and meanings over time, additions and subtractions of letters, &c.

Interspersed with the letter-sections are digressive sidebars on the history of writing and print, which when set off work fine, but when they force you to break out of the narrative (without convenient stopping points) I didn't particularly enjoy them. And the complete lack of citations was tricky - since I confess I don't know all that much about the minute details of alphabetical evolution, I would have preferred to know the sources of Sacks' pronouncements (there is, to be fair, a lengthy bibliography, but one wouldn't really know where to start with that).

Generally, an entirely adequate introduction to the subject (at least so far as I can tell).